Giovanni Smith (they/them)
Aisha Sabatini Sloan holds a dual appointment at the University of Michigan as a Visiting Professor in Creative Nonfiction with the LSA English Department’s Helen Zell Writers’ Program, and Assistant Professor of Creative Writing and Literature with the Residential College. She is the author of previous works such as “The Fluency of Light” and “Dreaming of Ramadi in Detroit.”
Aisha Sabatini Sloan’s new book-length essay “Borealis” walks in the footprints of George Perec’s “An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris” for Coffee House Press’s Spatial Species Series. In a news post on their website, Coffee House Press says the series, inspired by the work of Perec, “investigates the ways that we activate space through language.” As the first literary project in the series, “Borealis” is a venture into the queer/Black outdoors; Sabatini Sloan practices articulating queer/Black self-hood by using a collagist methodology of perception to reach what she calls “a kind of window.” Returning to Homer, Alaska, she contemplates past summers there with different women and their pets, her nephew’s solitary confinement, a vast field of artistic muses and study that offer bridges to deeper dimensions of seeing and so much more. Sabatini Sloan’s essay explores the “outside” as the practice of engaging oases of knowledge and internality to reach and communicate multiplicitous modes of being.
“Borealis” references a conversation with Saidiya Hartman and Fred Moten in which they talk about the Black outdoors as “living experiments” that try to “create openings.” With these “openings,” Hartman describes, we are able to think about what it means to “try to experiment with living in the context of a world that is, in so many ways, uninhabitable.” This uninhabitability operates on at least two general planes: the material, including issues like climate change and racism, and the immaterial, including the effects of the material. Or, in other words, Hartman explores how the material or physical world leads us to move through it, and articulate it and ourselves within it. Hartman and Moten also describe the material world’s influence as “the hold,” which signals tensions between the dimensions one truly desires and intends to communicate with others, and a language that isn’t able to reach those places. Sabatini Sloan quotes Fred Moten: “‘I don’t know that it’s possible to be clear when it comes to these kinds of things.’”
I’m interested in how Sabatini Sloan engages in the living experiment of using collages to create “openings” for herself and articulate dimensions of the queer/Black outdoors. She constructs her essay into a grid collage, and she also inserts collage descriptions throughout. Her essay is more than a mapping of geographical location, or an Alaskan trek. On the structure of her essay, she says, “A collage in the grid of this book acts, for me, as a kind of window.” This collagist method of seeing is used as a means of producing, as Hartman describes “a thought of the outside while in the inside.” While “Borealis” is tethered to the material, its collages reach into the immaterial, and Sabatini Sloan invites our attempt to look through the window she’s made, to see what we are able to decipher along with her. She layers elements ranging from paintings of glaciers, to a “pink explosion” and jewels; to a lighthouse, to music, dreams, cages, the desert; to solitary confinement, ghosts, aliens, and jellyfish.
Sabatini Sloan also uses collages as a method of self-containment: “The collages are, like the gray notebooks, a system outside of myself to keep me contained. Otherwise there would be nothing but freefall. Black lizard-looking rock on top of black infinity.” “Borealis” is indeed a beautifully disorienting essay, and it’s precisely in this disorientation where she finds locations for herself or some other parts of herself over and over again. Sabatini Sloan would have no way of landmarking her internality or communicating it to us in the context of the material world, without these collages, or the artistic muses she makes “altars” to, or the other scholarly work she intertwines in an attempt to grapple with its implications and applications.
In an interview with Aisha Sabatini Sloan and writer Saeed Jones about “Borealis,” they talk about how she makes fun of herself for not knowing how to describe nature. She writes in “Borealis,” “I don’t know how to be me and write about nature, or what I’m seeing. I don't know the names of anything.” The normative conventions of nature writing ultimately take us to be opposite the natural environment, and leads to violence– namely the colonial subjugation of queerness/Blackness. At the heart of the queer/Black outdoors, and “Borealis,” is the investment in finding “zones of safety” despite and within this violence. Saeed Jones says, “You finish reading [“Borealis”] and you’re hungry.” It is restorative, replenishing; a rich chest of living that leaves you wanting more.
If you would like to read this book, it is available to be borrowed from the Hopwood Room in Angell Hall (1176 AH). The Hopwood Room is home to the University’s Hopwood Awards writing contests, as well as a lending library of contemporary literature, literary journals, writing opportunities, and more.